Small fry must 'adapt or die'

Legal expert says stand-alone research institutes will need to find big partners. Olga Wojtas writes

June 19, 2008

Small stand-alone research institutes may have to "adapt or die", a legal expert on intellectual property predicted this week.

William McIntosh, a corporate and intellectual property partner with the Scottish law firm Lindsays, foresees an increasing trend among research councils and government departments to back away from funding stand-alone research institutes. He believes they will have to seek partnerships with big universities to survive.

"It wouldn't surprise me if some of the smaller institutes were told 'adapt or die'," he said.

Mr McIntosh said Scottish universities were the best placed within the UK to capitalise on partnerships and mergers because of their existing initiatives in research pooling, in which researchers from different institutions team up to share resources.

"There's a lot of joined-up thinking in Scotland in comparison with England, a lot of co-ordination going from economic agencies through Government and into academia."

Lindsays acted for the University of Edinburgh in the recent creation of a £100 million research centre that brings together the Roslin Institute, the neuropathogenesis unit of the Institute of Animal Health (IAN) and the university's School of Veterinary Studies.

Mr McIntosh said the Roslin partnership, probably the biggest institute in its field in Europe, had boosted the international interest that Scotland had already been attracting through its research pools.

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, which sponsors Roslin and the IAN and has been promoting more collaboration with universities, first mooted the partnership two years ago. At the time, its chief executive, Julia Goodfellow, said: "BBSRC-sponsored institutes are carrying out high-quality research, but their relatively small size and changing policy and end-user needs mean that they run the risk of becoming unsustainable financially and in terms of their scientific critical mass. Some are already in this position."

Mr McIntosh said the research councils wished to avoid duplication and to ensure that funds were spent wisely. They also wanted to achieve critical mass, which was not as easy in a stand-alone institute that had commensurately higher costs.

He predicted that charities sponsoring research institutes would also seek to bolt these on to existing university research units.

Universities had long experience of running research, had international reputations and could offer the wide variety of disciplines needed to ensure that research was run most efficiently and with the greatest chance of success, he said.

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